The revelation that the Trump administration secretly authorized several U.S. companies to sell nuclear technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia is generating alarm over ongoing negotiations about a broader deal that critics worry could eventually lead to a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia.
The Daily Beast and Reuters reported Wednesday that Energy Secretary Rick Perry had approved at least six Part 810 authorizations, which "allow companies to do preliminary work on nuclear power ahead of any deal but not ship equipment that would go into a plant."
Those reports provoked concerns from lawmakers that the development of nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, with crucial assistance from the American government and companies, could potentially enable the key U.S. ally—and serial human rights abuser—to also pursue a nuclear weapon.
"This is incredibly dangerous," Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) tweeted Thursday with a link to the Daily Beast article. "We must do everything we can to make sure the Saudi regime cannot develop nuclear weapons."
This is incredibly dangerous.
— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) March 28, 2019
Worries over a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia have been mounting since Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) said on CBS's "60 Minutes" last year that "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible."
While Iranian leaders also insist they do not want a nuclear weapon, President Donald Trump has continued to ratchet up regional tensions since last year, when he ditched the international deal designed to prevent Iran from acquiring one, despite assurances from U.N. watchdogs that nation was complying with the agreement.
Amid the new reports and rising concerns about nuclear weapons, Perry testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Pointing to concerns about the administration's nuclear talks with Saudi Arabia and potential legal violations—which whistleblowers recently brought to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform—Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) grilled Perry on the Department of Energy's (DOE) compliance with federal rules:
The last thing we should be doing is giving Saudi Arabia the tools to make a nuclear bomb. That’s why we have a law that requires Congress to review the sale of nuclear technology to foreign govts. But @SecretaryPerry seemed confused by that law – so I helped him understand it. pic.twitter.com/9t56GYkwDF
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) March 28, 2019
Following the committee hearing, DOE issued a statement—which Perry tweeted at Warren—clarifying that he has actually signed seven Part 810 authorizations for Saudi Arabia. The statement emphasized that "a Part 810 authorization does not authorize the transfer of nuclear material, equipment, or components," and so far, "no enrichment or reprocessing technology has been authorized to Saudi Arabia."
Part 810 authorizations do not require congressional oversight, but they are often open to public review. However, according to DOE, "the specifics of these authorizations have not been made public because the companies determined that the authorizations contain proprietary business information."
After Perry's testimony, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has criticized the administration for its nuclear talks with Saudi Arabia, vowed to introduce legislation requiring the DOE to make Part 810 authorizations available to Congress.
"We must ensure that Saudi Arabia never ends up with the American technology or materials to make a nuclear bomb."
—Sen. Ed Markey
"This administration has shown no qualms about going around Congress to assist authoritarians and promote private interests over public ones," Markey said. "We must ensure that Saudi Arabia never ends up with the American technology or materials to make a nuclear bomb."
Saudi Arabia, already infamous for its poor track record on human rights, has faced heightened scrutiny since the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey last year. Despite the CIA's conclusion that MBS likely ordered the hit on Khashoggi—whose body was potentially dismembered with a bone saw and then incinerated—Trump and key members of his administration maintain cozy relations with the Saudi regime.
Asked Thursday by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) whether he had signed the Part 810 authorizations before or after Khashoggi was killed in October, Perry said he did not know but would get back to the senator with the details.
Both Perry and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in his testimony before House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, claimed that any deal with Saudi Arabia would include safeguards to ensure the kingdom doesn't build a nuclear weapon.
However, some lawmakers remain skeptical. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told Pompeo, "If you cannot trust a regime with a bone saw, you should not trust them with nuclear weapons."
"If you cannot trust a regime with a bone saw, you should not trust them with nuclear weapons."
—Rep. Brad Sherman
Last month, Sherman—along with Markey, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.)—introduced legislation that would increase congressional oversight of any wider nuclear deals, called 123 agreements.
As DOE explained, a 123 agreement "allows the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license the export of nuclear material, equipment, and components from the U.S." Congress already reviews such deals and can block them with joint resolutions of disapproval passed by veto-proof majorities, but the bill would require congressional approval for any 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia.
After news broke about the secret authorizations for Saudi Arabia this week, some experts suggested the authorizations could be part of a wider effort to work around a 123 agreement with the country.
Richard Nephew, former director for Iran on the National Security Council, told ThinkProgress it is "absolutely normal" for the DOE to issue authorizations without an agreement, but these authorizations make him feel "uneasy," "nervous," and "suspicious" because "there are now indications that they [the administration] weren't approaching this entire issue the right way... it suggests an attempt to end run the 123 agreement."
Thomas Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, told the outlet, "It does seems clear that the administration has not acted consistently with either the spirit or the letter of the Atomic Energy Act, in failing to notify the Congress of the 810 approvals, and failing to brief Congress on the course of the 123 negotiations with Saudi Arabia."
Earlier this month, Rubio and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) probe the administration's nuclear talks with Saudi Arabia, along with any other negotiations by the executive branch since December of 2009. The Financial Times reported Tuesday that the GAO agreed to launch an investigation.